Last month saw the return of the Galle Literary Festival after an absence of four years. The GLF has always faced a mixed reception from most Sri Lankans. There are number of criticisms levelled at the festival, based on certain misconceptions or assumptions. I’ve decided to address some of them in this post and discuss what the Lit Fest is really all about.
The last GLF was held in 2012, and due to various reasons, from founder Geoffrey Dobb’s ill health, to politics in the country, the event failed to materialize the next few years. This year however, there was a lot of anticipation and GLF 2016 emerged, with new sponsor, the property developer, Fairway Holdings. It was now officially called ‘Fairway Galle Literary Festival’ and spanned four days with an extensive programme which included writers Amitav Ghosh, Sebastian Faulks, Fiona Shaw, Shehan Karunatilaka, and Mark Tully among other award winning literary personalities. There were also sessions in Kandy and Jaffna, creating access for audiences in those regions.
I only attended the festival on two days and saw a mix of the ticketed and free events. I’m a huge fan of Amitav Ghosh and arrived on Friday morning to catch his session on the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The writer is a funny, intelligent and down to earth man, and his books attest to this. However, I really wished the moderator focused more on his work than his personal life. I understand there is a balance to be made and she did not want to exclude those who may have not read the book. But the talk was essentially on his trilogy, and there was greater focus on the mundane. This was such a disappointment for fans of his work. Dumbing down literature to please a general audience was one criticism I could find for the festival. The audience however, asked intelligent questions about his work, and we all got our books signed!
The Fort was pretty packed that weekend and not everyone was there for the festival. The most common answer I got for this was,’I heard the tickets for each event was Rs 5,000/-?’ There are both paid and free events at GLF. All the writers have a big public event, where tickets are usually prized at Rs 1,000 or are free. The tickets that are over Rs5,000 are for the literary dinners where you pay for a fancy meal to get a personal encounter with the writer. This is standard practice in comic conventions, lit fests and other cultural events around the world. The price of this ticket actually covers the 5 star meal you are having, the usual amount you would be paying to eat at a hotel like that anyhow.
This year most of the free events were very interesting and there was plenty one could attend if they wanted to avoid the ticketed ones.
One of my favourite events from the festival was the performance by Sonam Kalra and The Sufi Gospel Project. This was a free event and was held at the Hall de Galle to a standing ovation. Her music hopes to unite people in faith and remind us that we are all one in our beliefs. She combines gospel, Sufi, jazz, western folk and Hindustani classical with religious hymns from all religions to bring peace and reflection to everyone. She first came up with the idea when she, a Sikh woman, who sang Christian gospel, was invited to a Muslim Dargah to give a performance.
Many lit festivals, including the Jaipur Literature Festival, are criticised as being elitist. Someone asked me, ‘Isn’t it full of the Hi magazine/Colombo Fashion Week crowd?’ Yes and no. I’ve shot both Colombo Fashion Week and GLF before, and while there is a fair overlapping of some of the audience, that would be just 5%. CFW is an invite only event, whereas the GLF is an open event and attracts a much wider audience both in Sri Lanka, and overseas.
Some tourists combine their tour of Sri Lanka with the GLF, and the event attracts book lovers from around the world, who want to see a new country and get a chance to meet their favourite writer. This is why you will see such a large foreign contingent in the audience. Also January is peak tourist season for Sri Lanka, and generally the Fort would be crowded with tourists at this time. The rest of the audience is a decent mix, from school kids to aunties and uncles, university students, and covers a spectrum of the English speaking population, primarily from Colombo. Since this year’s fest also reached Kandy and Jaffna, the audience was also more diverse.
The GLF’s focus on literature in the English language is what would narrow the audience. However, I did hear there were a few performances in local languages. So hopefully this will widen up in next year’s programme.
I definitely do not see the point of having a Hi Magazine photo booth at the event. But most people didn’t seem too interested in posing there.
Isn’t the Jaipur Literature Festival free? I attended the Jaipur Lit fest in 2012, and yes this festival is absolutely free. Officially known as the ‘DSC Jaipur Literature Festival,’ it is the world’s largest free literature festival. It would definitely be wonderful if GLF one day reached that mark, however, it’s current ticket prices are fair and I saw a full house at both the paid and free events. I think my only complaint would be that I wished some of the venues were bigger to accommodate the growing crowd. Personally, I feel Galle is a much prettier location, and much more relaxed, than Jaipur. Despite being free, even the JLF still gets criticised for being elitist.
Isn’t it only about books and literature? No, the fest also covers theatre, music, art, and food. There are also tours and culinary workshops. Look at the entire programme and you’d realise how extensive it can be.
I volunteered to shoot the festival in 2011, after just graduating from college, and I really enjoyed my experience there. The organizers go great lengths to make sure the whole team is looked after, and they throw us a party on Dobb’s residence at Taprobane Island at the end of the GLF. The party is also attended by the writers, and the volunteers get to hob nob with best selling authors and other personalities from the literary and art world. I remember standing behind Jung Chang in the buffet table and watching Candace Bushnell playing games with the volunteers. I’m not sure how it was this year, but I remember that dinner party being a fun and democratic space. So volunteering at the GLF is usually a good idea to get more access to its events.
Every weekend when people drive to Galle Fort to grab a bite down Peddlar’s Street or watch the sunset over the ramparts, they forget, there was a time when the Fort wasn’t always this interesting. It was not always this colourful or vibrant, or filled with cafes and guest houses. During the war, efforts of both foreign and local residents to create events and activities around this region has helped in cultivating the Fort’s current environment. The GLF has been around since 2005 and has contributed to putting Galle and Sri Lanka on the map.
Ultimately, festivals have one main aim, and that is to make a place festive. There were sessions we liked, some we didn’t, there was music, there was food and there was a crowd. And if there was anything the Galle Literary Festival achieved that weekend, it was that it got people to flock to the Fort, eat, drink, read, and more importantly, be festive.